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SSRI Antidepressants Tied to Learning Impairment.
Could Newborns Also be Affected?

June 10, 2010

Researchers led by Dr. Nesha Burghardt of Columbia University’s department of neuroscience and psychiatry have identified a mechanism that may explain how a class of antidepressants known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, can cause learning impairment. Celexa, Lexapro, Zoloft, and Prozac are SSRIs.

In a study published in the June issue of Biological Psychiatry, the scientists reported that long-term treatment of rats with the SSRI antidepressant citalopram (Celexa) impaired a form of learning known as fear extinction. After first coming to associate a particular stimulus, such as a sound, with a shock, rats can then “unlearn” their fear of the stimulus by experiencing the sound with no shock. However, SSRIs impaired the rats’ ability to learn that the stimulus was no longer tied to the shock. An earlier study by Dr. Burghardt found that chronic SSRI treatment also impaired the initial acquisition of the fear memory.

Previous human studies have shown that individuals undergoing therapy for panic disorder and anxiety did worse when the therapy was coupled with SSRI treatment. In analyzing brain tissue from the rats, Dr. Burghardt and her colleagues discovered a mechanism that might underlie that negative effect. They found that SSRI treatment had altered neurons in a portion of the brain called the amygdale, which is known to be important for memory and learning in both humans and rats. This in turn affected the rats’ ability to learn. SSRIs could similarly disrupt an individual’s ability to learn in therapy that certain objects, situations, or memories were not cause for anxiety or fear. According to the study’s authors, “These and our previous findings demonstrate that chronic antidepressant administration impairs amygdala-dependent learning.”

The findings also raise questions about the impact of SSRIs on the babies of women who take SSRIs during pregnancy. Studies have linked SSRIs with a number of birth defects involving the brain, as well as autism and low Apgar scores at birth. (The Apgar test measures the overall responsiveness and health of the baby. Low Apgar scores have been tied to an increased risk of low IQ and cognitive impairment.) Burkhardt’s research raises the possibility that women who take SSRIs during pregnancy are increasing the risk that their babies could be born learning-impaired.

Summary Information

Chronic Antidepressant Treatment Impairs the Acquisition of Fear Extinction

Nesha S. Burghardt 1,2, Torfi Sigurdsson 7, Jack M. Gorman 3, Bruce S. McEwen 4,
and Joseph E. LeDoux 5,6

  1. Departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, Columbia University
  2. Division of Integrative Neuroscience, The New York State Psychiatric Institute
  3. Franklin Behavioral Health Consultants
  4. Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology, The Rockefeller University
  5. Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York
  6. The Emotional Brain Institute at the Nathan Kline Institute, Orangeburg, New York
  7. Institute of Neurophysiology, Goethe-University Frankfurt, Frankfurt, Germany

Biological Psychiatry 2013 June 1;73(11):1078-1086.

This work was supported by National Institutes of Health Grant MH58911 to JEL and MH41256 to BSM.

Additional Studies Linking Antidepressants to Autism


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